The Unification of China

The last years of the Zhou dynasty were a period of confusion and turmoil, commonly known as the Period of the Warring States. The magnitude of the conflagration was so great that thinkers began to reflect on the nature of society itself, and the role of the individual within that society. While some searched for ideas which would lead to social and political stability, others were more concerned with individual tranquility which could be found in solitude away from society and its ills. These intellectual inquiries led to the development of three schools of thought, often considered religions, although they do not properly fit into that classification. They were: Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism.

Confucius and Confucianism: Confucius is an English corruption of Kong Fuzi, (551 – 479 B.C.E.) often called "Master Philosopher Kong" by his disciples. He was born in Lu, in Southern China to an aristocratic family and attempted to obtain a position at court; however his strongly held principles conflicted with political expediency, and he failed to obtain a position anywhere. He returned to his home in 484 B.C.E. bitterly disappointed at what he considered a personal failure, and died five years later. Although he never served as a powerful minister, he did serve as an educator and political advisor, which led to his reputation. He had numerous disciples, some of whom compiled his teachings in a work known as the Analects. The ideas preserved there have had a profound effect on Chinese political and cultural tradition.

Confucius’ teachings were not abstract philosophy or even politics; nor did they deal with religion. (He thought the latter to be beyond the understanding of mere mortals.) His personal philosophy of government was that positions should be filled with persons who were well educated but also conscientious and morally upright. These persons he called funzi, meaning "superior individuals. Since a formal educational system was lacking, Confucius had his disciples study the available literature from the Zhou dynasty, including the Book of Songs, the Book of Rites, etc. His influence and that of his disciples was so profound that these literary works became the foundation of Chinese literature for over two thousand years, until the early twentieth century.

Moral integrity and the ability to render sound judgments were far more important to Confucius than education. He taught his students to inculcate high moral values and hone their ability to analyze. Among the qualities on which he placed special emphasis:

  • Ren: Kindness and benevolence. Those who possessed it were respectful, loyal, diligent, and courteous.
  • Li: A sense of propriety such that one would behave in a conventionally appropriate manner. One should treat all people with courtesy; yet show special respect and deference to elders and superiors.
  • Xiao: Filial piety. Children should respect their parents and other family elders; care for them in their old age, and venerate them after their death. Xiao is significantly similar to the Commandment to "honor thy father and they mother."
  • Confucius did not intend that one should follow these principles solely for self improvement; rather he believed that those who possessed these qualities would influence as well as lead others. The end result would be the restoration of political and social stability through the leadership of morally upright individuals.

    Confucius only spoke in general terms. As a result, his disciples were able to interpret his teachings as they saw fit, and apply them accordingly. The result was a remarkably flexible interpretation of his teachings. Two of his disciples adopted famous, yet conflicting interpretations:

  • Mencius: interpreted Confucian ideas and combined them with his own to conclude that human beings were basically good. He argued that ren was most important; that governments should rule in a benevolent manner. They could do so by levying light taxes, avoiding wars, supporting education, and encouraging cooperation. Needless to say, Mencius had his critics; most of whom argued that he had a naively optimistic attitude towards humanity. His ideas were largely discounted during his lifetime; but in later years were considered the most authoritative of Confucius’ spokespersons.
  • Xunzi: Concluded that human beings were basically selfish and self centered; that they would resist any meaningful contribution to society He believed strong discipline was needed, and therefore argued that Confucius’ most important principle was Li. Although he believed it was possible to put human beings on the straight and narrow, it involved harsh punishment. He compared human beings to a piece of warped wood which could be straightened out, but only after much pounding, hammering, and not a little bit of heat.
  • Although Mencius and Xunzi differed in their philosophies, both accepted the fundamental optimism of Confucius’ teachings. Both believed that social order and stability could be restored; one through encouraging moral conduct, the other by a degree of coercion. Still, both retained the fundamental optimism of Confucius, and both placed high emphasis on education and public behavior.

    Daoism: The term dao literally means "the way." According to Chinese tradition, the philosophy originated with a sage known as Laozi, who lived c. 600 B.C.E. The major exposition of Daoism is the Daodejing, meaning ""Classic of the Way and of Virtue." Daoist thought developed in response to the Period of the Warring States as had Confucianism. The Daoists were critical of Confucius’ ideas, however, as they considered it a waste of time to contemplate problems which had no solution.

    The concept of Dao was (and is) elusive at best. It was considered to be the original force of the universe, eternal and unchanging, and governing all of creation; but it was a passive force that is spoken of in the Daodejing only in negative terms.

    A somewhat elegant illustration is provided by Jerry H. Bentley, et. al. in Traditions and Encounters, second edition. (p. 193)

    Dao does nothing, and yet it accomplishes everything. Dao resembles water, which is soft and yielding, yet it is also so powerful that it eventually erodes even the hardest rock placed in its path. Dao also resembles the cavity of a pot or the hub of a wheel; although they are nothing more than empty spaces, they make the pot and the wheel useful tools.

    The Daoist solution to the problems of society was to simply stop striving, and live as simply as possible. The chief moral virtue was wuwei, disengaging ones self from worldly affairs, avoid advanced education (since it emphasized useless trivialities) and live simply, unpretentiously, and in harmony with nature. Government should be as simple as possible; it should consist of self-sufficient communities where people had no desire to either fight or trade with their neighbors. So content would people be with their solitude that they would not even visit their neighbors.

    Note: Whereas Confucianism had advocated activism and involvement in community and governmental affairs, Daoism advocated a reflective, withdrawing into self knowledge. Since neither school of thought is exclusive of the other, over time some individuals have developed a hybrid philosophy involving both. They study Confucianism and seek administrative governmental posts; but in their private lives reflect on the nature of humanity.

    Legalism: Legalism arose from the thinking of those who were active in Chinese political affairs during the period c. 400 B.C.E.; the most famous of whom was Shang Yang, a minister to duke of Qin state. His thoughts are preserved in The Book of Lord Shang. Shang was a competent administrator but ruthless in enforcing his policies. When his patron the Duke died, he was murdered, his body mutilated, and his family destroyed. Another famous proponent, Han Feizi, collected legalist ideas into essays on governance. He too offended important and powerful people who forced him to take poison.

    Legalism promoted strict adherence to the letter of the law, ruthless and harsh as it might be. Legalists did not concern themselves with such niceties as ethics or morality; nor were they concerned about the place of human beings in the universe. Whereas the Confucians had relied upon education and a sense of propriety, Legalists supported a strict adherence to the law. They argued that agriculture and a strong armed force were the backbone of a successful state; and thereby attempted to channel as many people as possible into those areas. At the same time, they discouraged merchants scholars, poets, educators, etc. whom they considered useless.

    Legalist regimen was harsh and punishment severe. The underlying philosophy was to make the punishment so draconian that no one would dare disobey the law. One who threw ashes or trash in the street might have his hands amputated. If a member of a family committed an offense, other members were expected to turn him in; otherwise all would be equally punished with him.

    Makes one wonder what this policy would do for high school discipline!!

    Legalist thinking was not popular, but it did produce results, and was thereby adopted by a number of rulers. Legalist methods in fact were responsible for ending the Period of the Warring States and for the Unification of China.

    Chinese Unification

    Legalist thinking was followed prominently in the Qin state which soon dominated most of China. The Qin dynasty was short-lived, but set the stage for the Han dynasty which followed, and which governed all of China from a single central government.

    The Qin dynasty was able to expand its power by granting plots of land to individuals on generous terms which increased agricultural production substantially. This had the effect of weakening the aristocratic classes which had held land under a hereditary system. Taxes provided by agricultural successes were used to create a powerful army armed with iron weapons. By c. 300 B.C.E., the Qin state had grown at the expense of weaker neighboring states; and in 221 B.C.E. the king of Qin, Qin Shihuangdi, proclaimed himself the first Emperor of China. He claimed that his dynasty would last for thousands of generations; in fact it only lasted fourteen years.

    The first emperor ignored the nobility and ruled from a centralized bureaucracy. He divided China into administrative districts and appointed officers answerable to him to enforce his policies. Military forces which might lead a rebellion were disarmed and fortresses were pulled down. Roads were built for faster communication and movement of armies, and a number of defensive walls previously erected were joined together to form a huge defensive wall. This was the precursor to the Great Wall.

    The Emperor also standardized currency, laws and weights and measures. He also ordered Chinese script to be standardized. As a result, although the people of China spoke a variety of dialects (which they still do) they all used the same script, which made translation substantially easier.

    The Emperor’s heavy handed approach was criticized by Confucians and Daoists; however he would not tolerate dissent. Those who criticized him were executed, and books on philosophy, ethics, etc. were burned. Only books on medicine, fortune telling and agriculture were spared as they were considered useful. Many scholars were burned alive; many critics were forced into the army and sent to outposts where they were likely to be killed in combat. Some scholars managed to hide volumes of classic works and others were constructed from memory after the Emperor’s death; still a substantial volume of Chinese literature and thought went up in smoke.

    Although his ruthless policies brought prosperity to China, they also generated resentment. Immediately after his death, rebellions broke out which overwhelmed the state.

    Upon his death, Qin Shihuangdi was buried in a tomb constructed by 700,000 workers. A number of slaves, concubines and craftsmen were executed and buried with him. The tomb was rigged with booby traps (including rigged crossbows) to deter grave robbers. An entire army of over 15,000 life size terra cotta soldiers was set up near his actual burial spot.

    The Han Dynasty: The rebellions which erupted after the death of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi might easily have led to the sectioning of China and a return of a period of warfare. Instead, stability quickly returned due to the careful determined and methodical planning of another military commander, Liu Bang. By 206 B.C.E. he established himself as the head of a new dynasty which he called the Han, after his native land. The Han dynasty lasted for four hundred years (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) Because of a brief interregnum when an intruder ruled, historians divide the Han dynasty into the Former Han (206 B.C.E. – 9 C.E.) and the Later Han (25 -220 C.E.)

    Liu Bang had at first attempted to decentralize power by allotting land to family members whom he assumed would be loyal to him; and at the same time appointing governors over administrative districts answerable to him. However, when he was almost captured by a nomadic tribe of warriors and did not receive the support he had anticipated from his family, he centralized power and trusted only appointed administrators.

    The greatest Han Emperor was Han Wudi, known as the "Martial Emperor," who ruled for fifty four years (141 -87 B.C.E.) Han Wudi increased the authority of the central government by building an administrative structure and relying heavily on Legalist principles. He constructed roads and canals to facilitate transportation and trade; and established government monopolies on iron and salt production. At the same time, he placed China’s liquor industry under state control. He also established an imperial university in 124 B.C.E. to prepare young men for government service. By the end of the Later Han dynasty, over 30,000 students were enrolled.

    Liu Bang and other emperors had cared little for learning. Liu had once emptied his bladder in the cap of a Confucian scholar to show his contempt for education. Han Wudi also had little use for learning, as did most military men; but he understood its importance as a means of training competent government officials.

    Han Wudi also greatly expanded the territory under his rule by invading northern Vietnam and Korea which were subjected to his rule. Both were ruled by a Chinese-style government according to Confucian principles. As a result, the educational systems of both countries were drawn heavily from Confucian principles.

    The Xiongnu: The Xiongnu were nomadic warriors who spoke a Turkish tongue and were ruthlessly militant. Their weapons, crude bows and arrows, did not have the effectiveness of the Chinese crossbow; however they were very mobile and could retreat rapidly from areas which they raided. Although they did trade on occasion, they would raid if trading did not meet their needs. Over time, they established a vast empire from the Yellow Sea to the Aral Sea, an area larger than the Han Empire.

    The Xiongnu were militant to the core. Young boys were taught to ride sheep and shoot at rats until they were older when they shot at larger prey. Their most powerful ruler, Maodun (210-174 B.C.E.) once ordered his men to shoot their arrows at whatever target he selected. He then aimed at his favorite horse, one of his wives, then his father’s favorite horse. Those who hesitated were executed summarily. He then aimed at his father, who died instantly from numerous arrow wounds. Maodun thus became chief.

    Han Emperors attempted to pacify the Xiongnu by paying tribute or arranging marriages with the ruling houses. Neither method worked, and Han Wudi ultimately led an army against them, commanding as many as 100,000 troops. He managed to cut a corridor through central Asia to Batria, which split the Xiongnu Empire. The empire then fell apart, and the Han state remained uncontested for a time.

    Social Structure and Disorder Serious social and economic problems emerged during the Han dynasty when land was concentrated in the hands of a small aristocratic class. Banditry and rebellion resulted; at one point, even the Han Emperor himself was deposed. The Han regained the throne, but the Empire had been permanently weakened.

    Han society, as its predecessors, was Patriarchal in nature. A stable patriarchal family structure was considered the backbone of a stable society. Two scholarly works re-enforced this idea:

    Admonitions for Women: written by an educated woman, emphasized that women should be obedient, devoted, and subservient to their husbands.

    Classic of Filial Piety: written anonymously by a Confucian scholar admonished children to honor parents and superiors as well as political authorities.

    Most Chinese during the Han dynasty were engaged in agriculture. When production of iron tipped plows increased, agricultural yields also increased and the population grew accordingly. Estimates are that by the end of the Later Han Dynasty, China’s population was over sixty million. Similarly, iron was used to make household utensils for households who could not have afforded bronze. Iron was also used to manufacture suits of armor for soldiers as well as for swords, spears, and arrowheads, as a result of which the Chinese army managed to defeat the Xionghu and other nomadic tribes. Han craftsmen were also responsible for the manufacture of paper. Silk and bamboo strips had previously been used and were still used for a time by the wealthy, but paper was soon the medium of choice.

    Silk manufacturing (Sericulture) also became an important industry. Chinese silk, highly prized throughout Eurasia, even as far as the Roman Empire, led to the establishment of an intricate trade network known as the Silk Road.

    The Chinese were not the only people to produce silk; however their methods were superior to others. Chinese silk producers fed silkworms on chopped mulberry leaves and unraveled their cocoons carefully so as to produce strong, long fibers. Others collected wild silkworms and allowed them to chew through their cocoons, creating silk fibers that were short and of poorer quality.

    Ultimately, difficulties arose. Han Wadi’s campaigns against the Xiongnu and attempts to establish agricultural colonies in central Eurasia had been expensive. To pay for these enterprises, he raised taxes and confiscated property from wealthy individuals often by pretext of legal offenses. His actions caused a dampening effect on the Chinese economy. At the same time, the distinction between rich and poor became more pronounced. The rich wore expensive clothing and dined on pork, fish and fine wines while the poor wore clothing from hemp and ate mostly grain porridges. In time, the resentment of the lower classes led to open rebellion.

    A major cause of tension was land ownership. Poorer families often were forced to sell their land at unfavorable prices simply to survive. In extreme cases, they had to sell themselves of their family members into slavery. Tenant farmers were forced to pay increasingly large portions of their harvest in rent to their landlords. The result was a substantial increase in landholdings by the rich and a corresponding decline by the poor. Since the Han dynasty needed the cooperation of the large landowners, it made no attempt to provide relief. Rebellion was inevitable.

    In 6 B.C.E., the Han title fell upon a two year old boy. His regent, Wang Mang, ultimately seized power for himself by claiming that the Mandate of Heaven had passed from the Han heir to him. Wang instituted a wide ranging series of reforms which led to his designation by historians as the "socialist Emperor." He attempted land reforms, but attempted too much too soon, and met resistance from both peasants and wealthy landholders. When poor harvests and famine set in widespread revolts broke out; which culminated in Wang’s assassination in 23 C.E. by a gang of landlords and peasants.

    The Later Han Dynasty: The Han dynasty regained control, and regained centralized control of the empire; but did not institute serious reform. The wealthy grew increasingly wealthier and the poor increasingly desperate. Banditry increased as peasants struggled to survive by any means possible. A series of revolts broke out, the most significant of which was the Yellow Turban Uprising, named after the turbans worn by its participants. That particular rebellion raged throughout China. Although the revolt was put down, the dynasty was seriously weakened. The situation was exacerbated by the growth of factions within the Imperial Court. Family members, Confucian scholars, and even court eunuchs fought with each other for control. In one particularly gruesome incident, a group of imperial relatives slaughtered two thousand "beardless men" in an attempt to destroy the power of the eunuchs. The combination of rebellion and internal dissension was the death knell of the Han dynasty. By 400 C.E., the empire disintegrated, and China remained divided into several regional kingdoms for the next four hundred years.